South Africa 31-30 Wales
Slip sliding away
Huw Richards
June 21, 2014
Fighting the whole way ... Morne Steyn tackles Ken Owens © Getty Images

So this week the other form of poison. Not humiliation, but getting tantalised beyond endurance.

This may, in 50 years of Welsh international matches in the southern hemisphere, have been their best performance. Nor was there the sense of inevitability about South Africa's last-gasp comeback that has accompanied some earlier losses in a sequence of defeats by the south's traditional powers which now stands at 20.

South Africa looked beaten with 10 minutes to go, low on both ideas and energy. That they had enough of both to steal a match in which they had trailed by 17 points says much for their self-belief and will to win.

The 'if onlys' are likely to focus on the penalty tries, particularly the peculiarly tantalising thought that had Liam Williams let Cornal Hendricks over in the corner rather than shouldering him into touch, it would have taken one heck of a conversion from Morne Steyn - rather than the under-the-posts sitter with which he was presented - for South Africa to go ahead.

It is tempting to blame Steve Walsh, comfortably the most irritating referee in world rugby even when Alain Rolland was still around. But it was hard to argue with either decision. South Africa clearly would have scored on both occasions. And it is worth remembering that Walsh has presided over Wales's best displays of the last 15 months - the demolition of England at the Millennium in 2013 and the Nelspruit near-miss.

So where did it slip away ? That the Boks were going to come back hard in the final 10 minutes, as they had in the same period of the first half, was pretty predictable. So was the damage done by their drive from the lineout. Wales, you might argue, could have coped better with both. But that's a little like complaining about the England football team's marking of Luis Suarez. However well aware you are of a force of nature, countering it is always easier said than done.

The real loss of initiative came in the period around the hour when Flip van der Merwe was sin-binned. Already 10 points up, Wales might have hoped to put the match beyond recall during this period, but did not.

A blown line-out deep in South African territory had horrible echoes of those recent defeats by Australia. Taking only a penalty by Dan Biggar, who had one of his best games for Wales, from their spell of numerical advantage meant that the Boks came back to full strength still within two scores. Contrast that with how the Boks used their periods against 14 (or 13) men in both matches.

Wales, though, did vastly better than anyone could have anticipated. If Warren Gatland really was under pressure, as reported on Saturday morning by the Guardian's well-informed Paul Rees, his concerns should have eased, even if the decision to give him quite so long a contract extension after his Lions victory last year still looks ill-judged.

While comparatively little changed from last week, they were scarcely recognisable, coping with the Boks physical challenge, closing down their attacks rapidly and showing much greater variety when they went forward themselves. Gethin Jenkins and Taulupe Faletau put in formidable defensive stints, Mike Phillips was much sharper all round and for a brief period in the first half Alex Cuthbert terrorised South Africa almost as completely as Willie le Roux had Wales seven days earlier. Jamie Roberts, not for the first time, looked a vastly better player south of the Equator than he ever does to its north.

But still, 20 and counting. It really is getting a bit much …

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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